|l''Isard is here!|
|Foix, the capital of the Ariège department|
Along with being a stronghold for the Socialist Party, the Ariège department is one of the most untouched in France with forests, lakes and streams abound and it's a popular destination for skiing in the Pyrenees in the winter including ski stations such as Ax 3 Domaines and Plateau de Beille, both of which have been made popular by multiple appearances in the Tour de France. There are always some nice gems that this race touches which make it one of the most beautiful races on the calendar.
Now onto the racing....
Stage 1 took the race from Lorp to Eycheil. These two villages are only a stone's throw away from one another but a 126km loop was back loaded with a climb up the Col du Portet d'Aspet along with a final climb up to the finish in Eycheil.
A breakaway of 11 got away early on in the first few kilometers, which is pretty big for a race like this and included riders like Daan Hoole (SEG), Gage Hecht (USA), Alex Braybrooke (AVC Aix en Provence) and Fabio Mazzucco (Trevigiani Phonix Hemus 1896).
The gap got out to a maximum of 3'40" until Vendée U and Chambery, who both missed the move, took the chase over. There were a few crashes early on but nothing of major consequence happened until the Portet d'Aspet was climb. The climb was tackled from the Aspet side, which is normally the side that major races descend and was the descent where Fabio Casartelli crashed in the 1995 Tour de France and died from a blow to the head. Climbing this side should be used more often as it is the tougher of the two sides and the final 4.5 kilometers of the climb average 9.5% and hit ramps of 12%.
Anyways...the race...the breakaway got up the Portet d'Aspet but the gap was now under a minute onto the descent back into Saint Girons and to the uphill finish at Eycheil. By the time they finished descending and got to the outskirts of Eycheil, the breakaway was just 6 riders and the gap around 40 seconds. When they got on the climb, the breakaway went boom-boom with only three riders holding onto a slight gap while Welshman Stephen Williams (SEG) attacked out of the peloton at the beginning of the climb, which elicited no response.
With nearly 2 kilometers to go, Williams bridged up to the lead riders including his teammate Hoole, who stuck with him for 500 meters before pulling the pin. Williams was able to extend his advantage on the uphill slope and took his maiden UCI win in the U23 ranks ahead of a chasing group that was 8 seconds back, which was led in by Julian Mertens & Kobe Goossens (Lotto-Soudal U23) , Tiago Antunes (Aldro...which is led by Manolo Saiz...so there is that), Marlon Gaillard (Vendée U) and Aurelien Paret-Peintre (Chambery CF).
This rest of the peloton came in dribs and drabs, which is expected with a short, sharp climb like this where a guy like Williams, who was 9th in Liege-Bastogne-Liege U23, can thrive. What will remain to be seen is how he and everyone else will perform on Goulier Neige, which is more of a true alpine climb. Okay, it is 3 a.m. and I need to be up in 5 hours.